On Earth Day, praise BPA

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan President, American Council on Science and Health
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In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, the “Green Movement” has migrated far beyond the prevention of polluted lakes and streams and emissions from coal-burning plants to take on scientifically-shakier targets: allegedly harmful substances in food and consumer products. The goals of Earth Day celebrants now include what they call “green chemistry”—a prohibition on industrial chemicals they deem “toxic” and the embrace of ones deemed unequivocally “safe” (an unachievable goal, since any chemical, natural or synthetic, is toxic at some dose).

One of their new favorite targets, bisphenol-A (BPA), is an industrial chemical used for more than 50 years in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics, used in products such as beverage containers, infant feeding bottles, plastic dinnerware, and plastic storage containers. BPA is also used in the lining of cans to prevent food spoilage that can lead to bacterial infection, putting people at risk of botulism.

Multiple studies have confirmed that whatever BPA does migrate from these products is at an extremely low level and, as Dr. Michael Kamrin of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Michigan State University writes on Medscape (2004), “it is very unlikely that humans, including infants and young children, are at risk from the presence of BPA in consumer products.”

Green chemistry advocates have nonetheless raised these anxieties about BPA:

  • They note it can be found in trace levels in human tissue such as blood and urine (but they do not inform us that the mere ability to detect a substance does not translate into it being a hazard).
  • They speculate that our exposure to BPA could lead to a “nightmare” scenario whereby we suffer a variety of different diseases and discover it is too late to reverse the effects (but they don’t provide any credible evidence from human studies supporting such a “nightmare” claim).
  • They point to animal tests that conclude BPA causes brain, breast, and prostate abnormalities—not to mention causing infertility and “feminization” of male organs by acting like an estrogen (but they do not explain that animal tests, while essential to biomedical research, are conducted with very high doses that are unlike human levels of exposure and are not reliable in predicting human risk).
  • They cite various locations, including Canada, where BPA has been restricted (without noting that such bans were based on political science, not medical science).
  • They neglect to tell us that the safety of BPA has been affirmed by a diverse group of agencies and regulatory bodies, including the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the European Food Safety Authority, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity, and the Environment (among others).

Even a long-awaited statement from the current Food and Drug Administration (released on Jan. 15, 2010) reaffirmed the safety of BPA by not banning it or requiring labels, and it noted, “Studies employing standard toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA.” Earlier FDA statements had also confirmed the safety of BPA.

The January 2010 statement went on to say, “However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel [emphasis added] approaches to test for subtle effects…[the FDA] has some concern about the potential effects of BPA.” Read the adjective “novel” as meaning: outside the mainstream scientific methodology for testing safety. The expression of “some concern” based on “novel” research approaches led many in the media to serve up stories stating that the FDA had done an about-face on the safety of BPA, which simply was not true. The FDA was merely throwing a bone to the green advocates to compensate for telling them what they did not want to hear: that BPA is safe.

Yet the charges that BPA is a health hazard continue. One anti-BPA advocate told the press: “the science is clear and the findings are not just scary, they are horrific. When you feed a baby out of a hard, plastic bottle, it is like feeding a baby a birth control pill.” The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has been working since 2007 to achieve a ban on BPA, posted an article on HuffingtonPost with the headline “BPA Wrecks Sex, Fouls Food—and Probably Worse.”

Time magazine in a recent piece called “The Perils of Plastic” hinted that, even at low doses, BPA and plasticizers like phthalates (used to make plastic flexible) may be responsible for “a host of modern ills…obesity, diabetes, autism, and attention deficit disorder.” And now EPA is getting into the act, asserting that trace levels of BPA may pose a hazard on surfaces and in drinking and ground water.

Consumers—particularly parents of young children—are obviously concerned, and their concern is being conveyed to various political representatives who are suggesting legislation that would ban or limit exposure to BPA—particularly in products used by babies and young children.

How could there be such a discrepancy between the scientific facts (BPA is safe) and popular belief (that it is posing myriad threats to our health)?

First, the answer is partly psychological. Fear of BPA is irrational. It has no basis in fact. But any psychiatrist will tell you that human beings have always postulated that there are hostile, invisible agents in the environment. BPA is the perfect candidate for fomenting such irrational fear. It has an unpronounceable name; you can’t see it; you do not understand any benefits it might offer.

Second, the voices of the anti-BPA “green” movement dominate public dialogue and media coverage. Scientists—who know well that BPA has a fifty-year safety record but prefer to stay out of the fray—remain silent. Until scientists from academia and industry stand up and explain the utility of BPA and the difficulty of replacing it—and use the four-letter word “safe,” the activists will have their way.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.